Notre Dame has chance to be College Football Playoff contender

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Three more wins and the pressure shifts.

From the players to the real players; the ones who will decide the final four.

The noise that goes along with the College Football Playoff selection process got a little louder after Notre Dame’s 42-30 matinee win over Pittsburgh Saturday.

It’s a welcome distraction until it isn’t; until the Irish players and coaches let it to leak into their preparation or performance.

“We don’t allow any of that to affect us,” said Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer. “As long as we continue to stay committed to our goal each week, which is to go 1-0, hopefully we can accomplish our mission of getting to the playoffs.”

For now, that sound-proof booth is intact.

Dealing with the burden of a season in the balance on just about every snap was only one of the challenges the Irish faced — and conquered — in their convincing victory over a Pitt team that’s going to be pretty good a few years down the road.

• Notre Dame put a special emphasis on becoming more efficient and productive offensively inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Irish came in ranked 99th in the country in red-zone efficiency. The fruits of the labor were four red-zone touchdowns in four opportunities.

“We took the whole (offensive) unit and met,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the method of solving the red-zone problems. “We didn’t think it was one player. As a unit, we wanted to be more alert and recognize the play calls; a heightened awareness that … we have to be more efficient in there.”

“I made better decisions,” Kizer said of the red-zone improvement. “When you put an emphasis on executing, it brings to our attention what we need to do to get points when we’re down there.”

• For the first time in four years, the Irish had a game that started at noon.

Kelly sensed it could be a problem, so he packed his team up Thursday evening after practice for the short flight to Pittsburgh. Longtime Notre Dame staff members couldn’t think of a time – other than Thanksgiving week on the West Coast trip – when the team left so early.

The response was a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its first offensive march, while forcing a punt on the first defensive series.

In other words, it worked.

“Our guys are really good if there’s great transparency and you let them know, ‘Here’s what we want to do, and here’s how we want to do it,’” said Kelly. “We had a really good practice Friday. I knew it wasn’t going to be an issue for us today.”

Irish grad student linebacker Joe Schmidt said Friday’s workout went well beyond the normal game-eve walkthrough, including tempo and competitive drills.

• For the umpteenth time this season, the “next man in” got the call and responded. Late in the first quarter, running back C.J. Prosise — a replacement for No. 1 running back Tarean Folston, who was hurt early in the season (and don’t forget Greg Bryant’s academically-induced departure in the preseason) — went down with some sort of head, neck, shoulder, and everywhere-else-above-the-waist injury.

That put the yoke of responsibility on the shoulders of freshman Josh Adams. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound physical specimen responded with 147 yards on 20 rushes and a touchdown on a short pass from Kizer.

“He’s a big, physical kid,” Kelly said. “He’s very difficult to tackle. Leg drive. The physical characteristics of this kid, he’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger.”

Recognizing and then fixing problems are the traits of a team that has a chance. Nobody’s perfect. There are going to be bumps in the road. Negotiating those bumps on the fly and navigating through them is the essence of the stretch drive.

Notre Dame’s front-loaded schedule was a curse in early October, but a blessing now. Struggling Wake Forest and Boston College stand between the Irish and a showdown at Stanford.

Easy wins, right?

That’s what makes the next three weeks so difficult. Expectations are high. The difference between good and special can become evident on any snap.

The fact of life is that nothing’s easy from here on out. Kelly’s job is to keep hammering that home to each of his players. Now’s not the time to take a foot off the accelerator.

This team’s got a chance.

Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson (56) lifts DeShone Kizer (14) in the air after Kizer scored a Fighting Irish Touchdown during the second half at Heinz Field Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ